On November 28, the Niagara Falls City Council presented their proposed 2013 city budget.
This budget year was exceptionally challenging and time constrained. I would like to thank Council Chairman Sam Fruscione for his confidence and support for letting me put together the initial draft of the 2013 Niagara Falls City budget.
I would like to also thank Council member Robert Anderson once again for having faith in my budget experience. I would like to thank my council colleagues: Kristen Grandinetti and Charles Walker for their valuable input and assistance. With a record setting 150 amendments we had a unanimous 5-0 vote on all but one amendment. Certainly this sets a record for unanimity and cooperation on the part of any Niagara Falls City Council.
The council’s 2013 spending recommendations reduced the mayor’s 2013 budget by more than $4 million; contains no tax increase for homeowner or business; retains city services; keeps most of the jobs the mayor eliminated; and, creates a $700,000 contingency fund. That contingency fund will be used in part to support costs associated with fire and police protection. Public safety remains, as it should, a top priority.
By ending the city subsidy to USA Niagara we were able to save $3.1 million.
I want to note that over the past ten years our city taxpayers have supported USA Niagara to the tune of more than $30 million. It’s time for this subsidy to end and for those funds to be earmarked for city services and operation.
While some have boasted of USA Niagara successes, those success stories never include obvious failures such as the Third Street renovation and re-design that cost millions of dollars. The recent removal of the Third Street “bump-outs” was the waving of the white flag that surrendered any notion that the project helped the street. The downtown signage program has been studied and studied again for several years and has gone nowhere. The NCCC culinary school looks great, but scrubbed from the history books was the effort of two current city council members Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson who worked hard to move the school from the hotel it was scheduled to occupy and over to the Rainbow Center. Those council members where sharply criticized for recommending the Rainbow Center location, but today everyone agrees (success has many fathers but failure is an orphan) that the acquisition of the Cordish Rainbow Center was the positive turning point of the project. The Holiday Market was brought downtown by USA Niagara at a cost of a half-million dollars and we have no reliable accounting of that expenditure. The conference center is not a convention center and local tourism professionals will say, off the record, that our city needs a convention center, one capable of hosting live entertainment along with events such as boat, home and car shows. The snowplow-challenged paving stones on Old Falls Street were imported from Italy and require costly maintenance as they sink and rise in the ground. This street design didn't take the needs of the downtown and our western New York winter into account, just as the Third Street “bump-out” design failed to address traffic safety and parking.
Maybe USA Niagara hasn't been careful with our money because it wasn't their money. People tend to be more cautious when they’re spending their own money. In the past ten years we've given this agency more than $30 million, now it’s time to wish them well and keep those dollars for city use. Additionally, the organization has not been forthcoming in sharing information on their operating costs. Their reluctance to disclose their overhead does nothing to encourage the city’s support at a time when every dollar is critical to the city budget.
The state park drains our tourism parking fees. The state took prime downtown land for the casino while closing our convention center. Our casino cash has been trapped in a cross fire between NY state and the Senecas, while USA Niagara demands money from us to continue their development experiment. The entire relationship between our city and the state reminds me of the old joke: “Hello, I’m from the government and I’m here to help!” And that reminds me of the old saying, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?”
The gimmicky NYPA proposal that would buy out our city’s $850,000 per year 44-year annuity with a one time payment of $13.45 million is a non-starter so it wasn't a part of our deliberations. If the Dyster administration intends to use those NYPA dollars to support USA Niagara, the train station, consultant fees and pet projects at the cost of raising taxes and hurting both home and business owner we will never sign on to the agreement.
Overall I’m pleased with the results that our five-member city council were able to realize in developing a realistic and responsible 2013 budget for the taxpayers of Niagara Falls.
Again, I thank my council colleagues and I give a special thanks to the residents of this great city for bearing with us and sharing their thoughts throughout the whole budget process.
Glenn A. Choolokian is a Niagara Falls City Council member and lives in Niagara Falls with his wife and two children.